Discworld #7: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Read: 26 April, 2012

I felt that it was about time for me to return to Discworld!

In Pyramids, we follow Teppic – the heir of Djelibeybi – as he goes to Ankh-Morpork to study with the assassin’s guild. He’s called home just after passing his final exam because his father has died and it’s now his turn to be king.

Like the rest of the Discworld series, Pyramids is laugh-out-loud-and-then-realize-you’re-on-the-bus-and-die-a-little-inside-with-shame funny. The plot is a little flimsy, but that’s not what I’m coming to Pratchett for anyway. I did also find that Pyramids didn’t have any characters that really stood out. Dios and Ptraci (Tracey?) both had potential, but neither was really sufficiently explored. And, like most Discworld novels, the climactic end is written too visually and doesn’t come across very well – I often find myself skipping through the last 10-20 pages of Pratchett’s novels.

And, of course, I love how dense Discworld novels are with thinking food. Pratchett is a master at bringing up complex issues and ideas in a very simple (and funny!) way.

I don’t think that this would make a good starter novel for someone new to the Discworld universe, but it’s an excellent addition for old fans!

There’s a whole lot more Discworld novels that I haven’t read yet. Help me afford to expand my collection by buying Pyramids (Discworld Book 7) from Amazon! Continue reading

TBR Challenge

If you’re anything like me, chances are that you have at least a shelf of books that you’ve picked up and always wanted to read but just never have the time for. Maybe it’s that classic you’ll totally get to after the next “fun” book, or that one that all your friends keep telling you that you must read but you just never feel like reading.

Enter the TBR challenge!

Pick up and dust off those neglected books and review them on the 3rd Wednesday of each month. The Super Librarian has more information on her blog.

I won’t be formally participating, although this has pretty much been a TBR year for me so far anyway. But if you’re participating, leave a link back to your blog in the comments!

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Read: 11 January, 2011

Much of what we think we know about pirates today actually comes from Stevenson’s fictional narrative, Treasure Island. The plot is well-known: A pirate stays in an inn and, when the town is attacked by pirates, the proprietor’s son, Jim Hawkins, is left in possession of a treasure map. I grew up watching the story told and retold in cartoons, plays, and even as a puppet show! So it was very interesting for me to read the original book.

I went in expecting it to be heavy on the Victorianities, a good story but rather wordy. What I found was a very pleasant surprise. Treasure Island is fast-paced and exciting, with adventure and suspense and humour. I couldn’t read through fast enough and felt genuinely sad when the story ended.

I’m greatly looking forward to reading it again when my son graduates from his board books!

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Read: 5 August, 2010

The Book Thief has many of the common elements of a World War II narrative. There are children trying to grow up, to learn, to form friendships against the backdrop of hate and cruelty. There’s a Jew hiding in the basement. There’s the inevitable violent end of the Nazi regime, followed by confusion and guilt. But this story is told from the perspective of Death as he encounters, again and again, a little girl by the name of Liesel Meminger.

I’ve noticed that books written for young adults seem to be, on average, so much better than books written for adults. They tend to be more imaginative, better written, and far more thought-provoking. The Book Thief is no exception.

Like most books written about World War II, there was no lack of horror. There were times when I had to read through tears. There were also times when I laughed out loud. I found the characters to be very compelling and I truly cared about what happened to them. The writing style was fantastic and the gimmick of having Death be the narrator, which could so easily have become absurd silliness, was actually well pulled off.

I highly recommend this book for the young adult crowd, and I think that us old fogeys would do well to read it too.

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Empress by Shan Sa

Read: 20 July, 2010

Empress Wu tells the reader about her childhood in one of China’s impoverished but still noble clans, growing up a concubine of the emperor, and finally of becoming empress herself. This is the story of a bird locked in a golden cage, of lavish surroundings that fail to mask captivity, of the boredom and murderous competition of a small city of women all fighting to win the gaze of a single man.

The novel’s protagonist, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight), is a fairly complex character who is not always particularly likeable. She is in survival mode; even when she rules as empress, she must contend with assassination attempts and the ever present threat of failing health. This is a novel about a woman whose entire being is tied to the approval of men, and the suddenness with which fortunes can change through factors entirely out of her control.

Sa did an excellent job of painting the picture of a world that is at once rich and beautiful, yet brutal and cruel. I found it to be an interesting and well-written novel. It’s an easy read, although not always a pleasant one. This is a great novel to read if you happen to come across it, though I wouldn’t bother going too far out of your way to get it.

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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read: 26 January, 2011

The Scarlet Letter is the classic story of a woman who dared to rebuke the mores of her Puritan society.What pop culture didn’t tell me was that the novel actually starts with a rather lengthy chapter from the perspective of the narrator, living in “modern times” (mid-19th century), and complaining about life as a customs house clerk.

The first part was absolutely wonderful. It read like one of the Sketches by Boz narratives, as an exposé of a particular job in a particular place. The characters were vividly drawn amid the narrator’s meandering thoughts and rants. It was everything I fell in love with about Victorian literature!

The more well-known portion of the story had a more standard Social Problem feel. A fallen woman wins over the reader and, perhaps, the novel’s community by being a perfect angel of the hearth, a self-sacrificing and nearly Christ-like in her perfection. We’ve seen this before in novels like Ruth and Oliver Twist. But Hawthorne pulls a fast one and martyr’s the male tango-dancer instead, allowing Hester to live and, presumably, to grow old.

I expected to have some trouble with this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything from the Victorian period (at least that was aimed at an adult audience). But I found The Scarlet Letter to be extremely engrossing. I read the whole thing in just a few days and enjoyed it immensely.

As a little side note, I read this book while very obviously pregnant. It was rather titillating to be in public reading a book that is famously known for being about promiscuity resulting in pregnancy while actually pregnant!

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Raising a Secure Child by Zeynep Biringen

Read: 13 September, 2011

Raising a Secure Child starts from the same Daniel Goleman research that informed Emotionally Intelligent Parenting. Since the two were so similar in many ways, I can’t help but to review the former in light of the latter.

I complained that Emotionally Intelligent Parenting provided sample dialogues to illustrate their points that were clearly idealized and read like something from the Stepford Wives. It was almost creepy. Raising a Secure Child, while making much greater use of dialogues and sample situations, did a much better job. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this was one of the book’s most positive features. Every major point was backed up with a short vignette of a family either doing it right or doing it wrong that helped me see what the point should (or shouldn’t) look like in practice. I found these to be a huge help in visualizing how I might out the advice into practice.

While Emotionally Intelligent Parenting focused on always saying the right thing, the focus in Raising a Secure Child was much more on the non-verbal interactions between parent and child. In other words, really meaning it is seen as more valuable than always having the right script handy. This made a good deal more intuitive sense to me.

Both books had the same emphasis on being emotionally present for kids (although, again, I felt that Raising a Secure Child made the point in a way that felt more practically applicable), and both talked about the importance of structure and limit-setting.

Raising a Secure Child spent a good deal of time on helping me to analyse my own upbringing to help me see how that might affect how I interact with my son. While it’s something I have thought about a lot, I still found it helpful to go through in a more methodical sort of way.

And while it isn’t applicable to my family, I do think the sections on children with special needs and getting through a divorce could be very useful.

Both books covered the full range from baby to young adult. I think that both are worth reading, but Raising a Secure Child is by far the better of the two.

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Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth

Read: 9 September, 2011

There’s a trick to reading parenting books: Never read them reactively.

It’s a rule I’m normally really good at following, but I broke it when I picked up Health Sleep Habits, Happy Child. To make a long story short, my son sleeps wonderfully at night but is a terrible day napper. This often leads to some horrific bouts of crankiness, so I looked up infant sleep books at my local library to see if I could find something to help.

The central advice of Healthy Sleep Habits is to have babies take regular naps (and he does emphasize the “regular”). Great! I agree! Now how do we accomplish this?

Well, that’s where the book starts to fall apart. Weissbluth recommends a sleep routine that may include things like reading a bedtime story (which excites my son because books are OMGWTFAWESOME!!), a bath (which excites my son because water is OMGWTFAWESOME!!), a massage (which excites my son because physical contact is OMGWTFAWESOME!!), and a lullaby (which… Yeah, I think you get the point).

I realize that my son is a bit weird. The grandson of two professional track-and-fielders (one of whom held a world record for a year) and a professional mountain climbing instructor, he’s predisposed to some rather heightened energy levels. Not only is he an unstoppable force, he’s also hitting all of his physical milestones on the very early end of the spectrum.

So Weissbluth’s advice doesn’t seem to work for our family (and I refuse to even try the cry-it-out method that he says may help if the stable bedtime routine fails). Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a huge deal. I don’t know any adults who need nipples in their mouths to fall asleep, so I can reasonably assume that TurboKid will eventually grow out of his sleep problems, like I did. I could just keep trying with the routine and that would be the end of it.

The problem with Weissbluth is that he peppers his book with comments like:

I think it possible that unhealthy sleep habits contribute to school-related problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities.

and:

Warning: If your child does not learn to sleep well, he may become an incurable adult insomniac, chronically disabled from sleepiness and dependent on sleeping pills.

These sorts of friendly reminders are helpfully printed apart from the text, presented in bold and segregated in little boxes, lest you fail to notice that you are irrevocably breaking your baby.

There were aspects of the book that I enjoyed, such as the breakdown of strategies by age. But these were so overshadowed by the fear-mongering that it’s hard for me to write anything other than a negative review. It’s bad enough that I’m dealing with a cranky baby and that I can’t get the method to work. To add a level of desperation, to make my failure something that will turn my precious babe into a disabled drug user, is just cruel.

Bad, Weissbluth. Bad.

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The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

Read: 7 July, 2011

I really want to categorize this book as fiction; and, in a sane world, I would. Unfortunately…

It begins in 1983,  when Major General Albert Stubblebine III (a truly Dickensian name), upon realizing that both his body and the wall are made up of atoms and that atoms are mostly made up of empty space, tries to walk through a wall.

Starting from Stubblebine’s sore nose, Ronson takes the reader through a brief history of the US military’s more insane moments. He lulled me into a sense of “oh, that happened in ’70s, but it would never happen today” with stories of men staring at goats to make their hearts stop (and, when goats aren’t available, the odd hamster would do) and a First Earth Battalion that could end conflict with their “sparkling eyes.”

But then he gets into the ‘War on Terror’ and the horrific acts at Abu Ghraib.

The most difficult part of reading The Men Who Stare At Goats is to remember that this is only, as the subtitle says, about a “small group of men” who happen to be placed in some key positions. It isn’t representative of the army as a whole. The problem is that each of these “highly placed” men have subordinates in a culture that does not tolerate dissent – even when the orders are quite obviously insane.

Throughout, Ronson remains very objective. He allows his subjects, and their beliefs, to speak for themselves. This is an amazing feat when writing a book about men who believe that they can walk through walls or stare goats to deaths.

The tone of the book seems somewhat rambly – jumping back and forth through time and skipping from subject to subject – but it all makes sense by the end, when the whole is tied together and the influence of Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion Operations Manual is made clear. And, really, this is the story of that book – of its history and its legacy.

Men Who Stare At Goats appears to be meticulously researched. Certainly, it comes through in Ronson’s writing just how difficult certain people and facts were to find. And, although some of the connections he draws are speculative (or based on “wink wink” statements from his informants), he does make the case that it’s all at least plausible if not factual. I found it to be a very interesting and thought-provoking read, even if my faith in humanity requires that I remain somewhat provisional in my trust of Ronson’s depictions.

Assuming that it is all (or mostly) true, though, I’d be very interested in a follow up in coming years as to the effect of the book on military policies and strategies. Has Men Who Stare At Goats embarrassed the leadership sufficiently to cause a change? Will it spell the end of First Earth Battalion‘s influence? Or will it increase its popularity?

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Watership Down by Richard Adams

Read: 8 June, 2009

When Fiver senses that a great danger is coming to the warren, only his brother and a few others believe him. Unable to convince the other rabbits, this small band leaves on a journey in search of safety that takes them through farmyards, across roads and rivers, and into warrens with very different cultures.

This is an absolutely fantastic book. The adventure story alone is well worth the read, but the amateur mythicist in me was especially impressed with the construction of an entire rabbit culture and religious system, language included. Especially impressive is how familiar and, yet, distinctly alien the rabbit culture is. This rarely felt like a book about people that happens to be set in a rabbit setting. Rather, this was a book about rabbits, only slightly anthropomorphism. The characters and their culture retain a great deal of what can only be called ‘rabbitiness.’

Most books get at least one aspect right. Some get a few things right. When this happens, the book may be called masterful, or great. But Watership Down is one of the very few books that tempt me to use the word ‘perfection.’ This is a masterpiece and I think that anyone who hasn’t read it yet is somewhat impoverished. There’s something about it that just touches the Jungian collective subconscious. This is the hero with a thousand faces pulled off in a way that feels natural.

Though marketed as a children’s book (although perhaps a little too gruesome/frightening for younger kids), Watership Down is a must read for adults as well.

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